Kirby: Auteur? Or TV DP? Comments

I got a bunch of emails on the “auteur” post. Hopefully I clarified my stance on the topic with today’s posting.

Here is a post from one reader I thought I’d address briefly:

Of course you can use the word auteur with respect to Kirby, but I don’t think it applies to his Marvel work, at least as pertains to the tone of the stories. The power of the art dominates, as comics is a visual medium, but the stories, dialogued by Stan, convey a certain tone also. I’d say that at times the story carries the day, and at times the art does. So neither Stan nor Jack were auteurs in the Marvel work. No man’s approach dominated. But, that’s just my opinion, anyway. Of course, I simply may not know the true meaning of the word auteur. Best wishes.

— Allen Smith

I don’t see Kirby as what I call a “pure autuer” on his 60s Marvel stuff either — because Stan wouldn’t let him add text to his stories. Caniff was a “pure autuer.” Eisner was a “pure auteur.” Schultz was a “pure autuer.” Those guys wrote, drew and inked their work. In fact, I prefer “author” to describe the process — the term “auteur” sounds a little pretentious and I can see a lot of people define it differently — so for me, I say that Jack was the author of the 20-page penciled stories he gave Lee, and after Lee dialogued it, Kirby was the principal author, and Lee the secondary author. To me that seems like a fair way to describe the division of labor.

The problem is that “author” is a term associated with text, so using a term like “autuer” takes us more into the realm of describing literature combining text/images when we try to describe the division of labor in comics. In reality, I don’t know if anyone has ever really figured out a perfect way to describe the Kirby/Lee relationship, mainly because we will never really know how substantive the plots Lee gave Jack were. I’ll take a stab and it and revise my terminology a little to say:

Jack Kirby was the Principal Author (Visuals) — Jack did the story using visuals/ margin notes BEFORE text was added. Lee was the Secondary Author (Text).

I doubt there are very few people who will ever work that way again, because it’s really not fair to the artist — Jack and just about any artist worth their salt are more than capable of adding dialogue to their own visual stories. Jack just worked in a unique situation. Lee didn’t have time to give Jack a 20-page script for 3 stories each month; Jack didn’t need a script; Lee wanted that writer paycheck each month on Jack’s 3 books; Lee liked the prestige of seeing his name up top in the credits, and the adulation he got from fans as “the writer” and the “genius” behind all of Jack’s wonderful stories and art — so Jack was in a strange position, Jack wrote stories with pictures/margin notes and another man came in and added text. But I think Jack handled the situation with grace, class, and I think Jack’s style and his artistic sensibilities shine through in his 1960s stories and art.

To me, if you want to accurately put credits in the Kirby/Lee books this is how it would read:

Writer/Artist: Jack Kirby

Writer/Editor: Stan Lee

Or

The Kirby/Lee Division of Labor (Kirby)

Principal Author (Visuals): Jack Kirby

Secondary Author (Text): Stan Lee

The real problem is that this is what Lee’s supporters think is an accurate depiction of the division of labor:

The Kirby/Lee Division of Labor (Lee)

Principal Author (Plot): Stan Lee

Secondary Author (Visuals): Jack Kirby

Tertiary Author (Text/Edits): Stan Lee

And I could see some validity to this argument. It just appears to me, for most of his 1960s work, Jack was responsible for the bulk of the storytelling in phase one, and I think my way of describing the division of labor is the one that comes closest to describing what took place over the entire 1960 – 1970 run. We’re just never going to know how much of a plot Lee gave Jack to work with, sometimes Lee gave Jack nothing to work from, so chances are the Kirby/Lee authorship debate will never be resolved. In the end, I certainly see nothing wrong with someone like Arlen Schumer calling Jack an “auteur” or me calling Jack the “Principal Author” of his 60s stories. We’re all just trying to give Jack some credit for being more than Lee’s penciler and I think most agree that was the case.